This post tackles one of the most yearned for—yet elusive—habits since the dawn of electronic inboxes: maintaining inbox zero. Before delving into the how, let’s explore the real meaning of this widely misused and misunderstood term.
Most folks hear inbox zero and think it’s all about a number; to be specific, a big fat “0” and lots of white space in your email inbox. When Merlin Mann coined the term, however, his intent was more about urging us to reclaim our time, productivity, and sanity, than dictating a single-minded need to keep dust bunnies out of our email inboxes.
Inbox zero is really about developing your own system and habits to manage email efficiently, and give yourself the time and head-space to focus on getting more important things done. There is no magic formula, but there are a lot of great systems and tools you can borrow from to vanquish email overwhelm. I’ve compiled a few of my favorites below.
1. Fresh Start: The Email DMZ
This is a great strategy to help you get started. Stop wasting time trying to clear the back-log of 1,397 email messages (or 10,329 …yes, I’ve been there). Whatever the number, you’ll NEVER beat it; you need a fresh start. Create an archive folder and shove everything from your inbox into it. Clean slate. If that’s too drastic, pick a date—perhaps three or four weeks prior—and leave only those messages received after that date in your inbox, everything else gets the boot.
The idea is to draw a line in the sand and take the pressure off of clearing the backlog. Instead, focus on managing the new stuff. Mann advocates for and describes this technique in this 2006 blog post on 43folders.com. Keep in mind, this approach is only helpful if you identify ways to manage the new messages that will quickly take their place. So don’t bother trying this until you have some ideas about how you’ll change your email-hoarding habits going forward.
2. Schedule and Batch
This takes some discipline, but it’s really quite simple. Whatever software or web-interface you use to access your email—Outlook, Mail, Gmail, etc.—schedule specific times of the day to open it. STOP leaving your inbox open 24/7. For some of us, a once a day spot check may be sufficient, others will require more frequent check-ins. Pick a schedule that you’re comfortable with and honor it, whether it be the beginning and end of your work day, or at a set interval of every-so-many-hours.
When you DO open your inbox, you need a systematic approach to dealing with those pesky messages. My system involves starting with the low-hanging fruit and working my way up: deleting the spam and other miscellaneous reply-all messages; responding immediately to messages requiring a quick reply or confirmation; and filing everything else in a folder after setting a reminder notification in my project management dashboard for a suitable time to process or follow-up with whatever each message requires. The idea is to avoid using your inbox as a checklist, because the checklist will quickly extend out of sight and serve as a tremendously effective visual trigger of overwhelm.
A lot of people are clamoring for your attention in your inbox, and it’s deafening. Turn down the noise and slow the onslaught by simply unsubscribing from electronic updates and newsletters. Reputable merchants, service providers, and charities abiding by the CAN-SPAM Act will honor your request to stop emailing you. Typically, you’ll see an “unsubscribe” link somewhere in the footer of such messages.
In the case of true spam (i.e., unsolicited bulk messages with the intent to defraud or advertise), don’t bother trying to unsubscribe. Instead, mark the suspect messages as junk mail and block the sender so that future messages are diverted from your inbox. If you have the time and initiative, you can also report offenders.
4. Enlist Some Help (…from an app or two)
There are numerous apps that will automate the various strategies described above. A few to check out: Shift can help with filtering messages by integrating your email accounts with your calendar and productivity tools, CleanFox simplifies unsubscribing, and options like Spark and Newton enable you to set-up notifications for critical messages without having to open your inbox (as well as snoozing emails, scheduling reminders, and a ton of other features). Keep in mind that these and other similar apps are subscription based (CleanFox is currently free), but often offer free trials (14-day for Newton), or are structured on a freemium model (such as Shift and Spark).
Other Recommended Reading
- Read more of Merlin Mann’s archived blog posts on Inbox Zero
- Check out “My 10 Essential Email Habits” or “Email Sanity” over on one of my favorite blogs, Zen Habits
Want me to dig a little deeper on this topic? Have questions about the specifics of any of these strategies? Have your OWN proven system to tame your inbox? Be sure to scroll down and share your thoughts in the comment box below!
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